Click below to listen to this article:
Positive and negative forms of Self-transcendent experience (STE) and why they overlap
Self-transcendent experience (STE) is a psychological phenomenon that involves experiencing a sense of Connection with Something greater than oneself, such as nature, humanity, or The divine. STE can have positive effects on wellbeing, Meaning, Mystical experiences, and Prosocial behaviour, but it can also be associated with negative Pathological outcomes, such as Psychosis, Delusions, or suicide. In this article, we review the current literature on the different forms and correlates of STE, and propose a conceptual framework to understand how positive and Pathological forms of STE are generally distinct, yet they can also overlap. We suggest that the key factors that determine whether STE leads to positive or Pathological outcomes are the degree of Integration, Coherence, and functionality of the transcendent experience and its interpretation. We also discuss the implications of this framework for clinical practice and future research.
What is a Self-transcendent experience (STE)?
Self-transcendence is a concept that refers to the ability or tendency of an individual to go beyond their own Self-interests and limitations and connect with something greater than themselves. It can be understood as a process of expanding one’s Awareness, identity, and values to include not only the personal but also the transpersonal aspects of reality. Self-transcendence can be experienced in different ways, such as through spiritual practices, altruistic actions, artistic expressions, or Awe-inspiring encounters with nature or other people. According to some psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow, Self-transcendence is the highest level of human development and the ultimate source of Meaning and fulfilment in life. Self-transcendence can also be seen as a response to the existential challenges of human existence, such as mortality, suffering, and meaninglessness. By transcending the self, one can find a deeper sense of Purpose, belonging, and transcendence in life.
A Self-transcendent experience (STE) is an experience that goes beyond the ordinary Sense of self and connects one to something greater and more meaningful. It is a state of consciousness that involves a feeling of Unity, Awe, wonder, and spiritual Awareness. Self-transcendent experiences can occur in various contexts, such as nature, art, music, meditation, Religion, or near-death situations. They can have Profound and lasting effects on one’s wellbeing, happiness, and sense of Purpose.
What are positive and negative (Pathological) forms of STE?
STEs can have positive effects on wellbeing, Meaning, and Purpose, as well as lower Depression and Anxiety. However, not all STEs are beneficial or healthy. Some STEs can be Pathological, Meaning they are associated with mental disorders or impairments in functioning.
One way to distinguish between positive and Pathological forms of STEs is to look at the context, Phenomenology, and aftermath of the experience. Context refers to the setting and circumstances of the STE, such as whether it was intentional or spontaneous, induced by drugs or meditation, or occurred in a supportive or stressful environment. Phenomenology refers to the subjective features of the STE, such as whether it was pleasant or unpleasant, coherent or chaotic, Ego-dissolving or Ego-inflating, or accompanied by Perceptual alterations or Delusions. Aftermath refers to the long-term effects of the STE, such as whether it led to positive changes in personality, values, or behaviour, or negative consequences such as distress, Confusion, or isolation.
Based on these criteria, positive forms of STEs are those that occur in a safe and appropriate context, have a Harmonious and Integrative Phenomenology, and result in beneficial and lasting outcomes. Pathological forms of STEs are those that occur in a risky or inappropriate context, have a discordant and disruptive Phenomenology, and result in harmful and persistent outcomes. For example, a positive form of STE might be a Mystical experience during a meditation retreat that enhances one’s sense of Compassion and Connection with others. A Pathological form of STE might be a psychotic episode during a drug overdose that induces Paranoia and alienation from reality.
Some examples of positive Self-transcendent experiences are:
- Feeling Awe when witnessing a beautiful sunset, a majestic mountain, or a starry sky.
- Feeling Compassion when helping someone in need, volunteering for a cause, or donating to a charity.
- Feeling love when sharing a Profound bond with a partner, a friend, or a family member.
- Feeling joy when celebrating a personal achievement, a cultural tradition, or a religious festival.
- Feeling connected with God when experiencing a Profound Mystical experience.
Here are some examples of negative Self-transcendent experiences:
- Feeling Overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe and losing a sense of Personal significance or identity.
- Having a mystical or Religious experience that contradicts one’s beliefs or values and leads to doubt or crisis of faith.
- Experiencing a Loss of agency or control over one’s actions or thoughts, and feeling helpless or powerless.
- Feeling threatened by negative entities as part of a Mystical experience.
- Facing existential questions or challenges that provoke Anxiety, fear, or despair.
Of course, not all STEs are clearly positive or Pathological. Some may have mixed or ambiguous features that make them difficult to classify. Moreover, the same STE may have different effects on different people depending on their personality, culture, and interpretation. Therefore, it is important to consider each STE as a unique and complex phenomenon that requires careful evaluation and understanding.
Sometimes, seemingly positive self-transcendent events can also have negative consequences, especially when it is induced or manipulated by external factors, such as drugs, cults, or charismatic leaders. For example, some cults use techniques such as chanting, meditation, isolation, or deprivation to induce Self-transcendent experiences in their followers. These experiences can make the followers feel a strong sense of belonging and loyalty to the cult and its leader, and a loss of individuality and critical thinking. They may also become more susceptible to influence, persuasion, and exploitation by the cult. In some cases, Self-transcendence can lead to extreme behaviours, such as violence, suicide, or mass murder.
Why is it important to study the distinction and overlap between them?
Sometimes seemingly negative STE’s can have a positive outcome, and similarly, seemingly positive STEs can have a negative outcome. For example, a “demonic possession” can provide the individual with valuable self-Insight which ultimately improves their life. Or a Mystical experience in a positive environment can leave the individual deeply troubled and negatively affects. It is important to study the distinction and overlap between the positive and Pathological forms of STE, as this can help us understand the Psychological mechanisms, Neural correlates, and therapeutic implications of these phenomena. By examining the factors that influence the outcome and quality of STEs, we can better appreciate the complexity and Diversity of human consciousness and its potential for transformation.
How do positive forms of STE enhance well-being and Meaning in life?
STEs have been associated with positive psychological outcomes, such as increased wellbeing and Meaning in life. For example, you may have a Self-transcendent experience when you witness a breathtaking sunset, listen to a moving symphony, feel a deep sense of peace during a yoga session, or volunteer at a homeless shelter. According to some researchers, Self-transcendence is a Salutogenic process that promotes wellbeing and Meaning in life.
Wellbeing is a Multidimensional concept that includes physical, mental, emotional, and social aspects. Meaning in life is a subjective sense that one’s life has Purpose, Coherence, and significance. Both wellbeing and Meaning in life are important for Human flourishing and happiness.
How do Self-transcendent experiences enhance well-being and Meaning in life? One possible explanation is that they broaden our Perspective and help us appreciate the beauty and wonder of existence. They also foster a sense of Gratitude, Awe, and Humility that can reduce Stress and increase Positive emotions. Another possible explanation is that they align our actions with our values and goals, and motivate us to pursue what matters most to us. They also increase our sense of mattering, or feeling that we make a difference in the world.
Self-transcendence is not a fixed trait that we either have or don’t have. It is a skill that we can cultivate through intentional practices and habits. Some examples of such practices are mindfulness meditation, volunteering, spending time in nature, expressing Gratitude, and engaging in creative activities. By developing Self-transcendence, we can enhance our wellbeing and Meaning in life, and live more fully and joyfully.
What are the psychological and neural mechanisms underlying positive forms of STE?
One possible psychological mechanism is the activation of self-transcendent values, such as Altruism, justice, or Spirituality. These values can increase the receptivity to persuasive messages and behaviour change by enhancing positive valuation and reward processing in the brain. Another possible psychological mechanism is the reduction of self-referential processing, such as Rumination, Self-criticism, or Ego-inflation. These processes can interfere with the Awareness of the present moment and the Connection to others. By decreasing self-referential processing, Self-transcendent experiences can enhance mindfulness, Compassion, and empathy.
One possible neural mechanism is the modulation of the Default mode network (DMN), a brain network that is involved in self-referential thinking, autobiographical memory, and Social cognition. The DMN is typically active when the mind is wandering or resting, and less active when the attention is focused on a task or an external stimulus. Some Self-transcendent experiences, such as meditation or psychedelics, can reduce the activity of the DMN and increase the connectivity with other brain networks, such as the Salience network or the Executive network. Another possible neural mechanism is the activation of the Mesolimbic Dopamine system, a brain system that is involved in reward, motivation, and learning. The Mesolimbic Dopamine system can be stimulated by Positive emotions, such as joy, Gratitude, or love, that are often elicited by Self-transcendent experiences. The activation of this system can enhance the subjective value of these experiences and reinforce their occurrence.
How do Pathological forms of STE impair functioning and cause distress?
Self-transcendence can have Pathological forms that impair functioning and cause distress. Some examples of Pathological forms of Self-transcendence are:
- Psychosis: This is a condition that involves a loss of contact with reality, such as Hallucinations or Delusions. Psychosis can be seen as a form of Self-transcendence because it involves a distortion or dissolution of the Sense of self, a perception of hidden meanings or Connections in the environment, and a belief in supernatural or paranormal forces. However, Psychosis is often not a healthy or adaptive form of Self-transcendence, as it causes Confusion, fear, and distress. Psychosis can also interfere with daily functioning, communication, and Social relationships. An example of Psychosis as a Pathological form of Self-transcendence is when someone hears voices that tell them what to do or that they are being watched by aliens.
- Dissociation: This is a phenomenon that involves a disruption or detachment from one’s sense of identity, memory, or consciousness. Dissociation can be seen as a form of Self-transcendence because it involves a separation or fragmentation of the self, a feeling of being outside one’s body or reality, and a lack of Awareness or control over one’s actions. However, Dissociation is often not a healthy or adaptive form of Self-transcendence, as it often results from Trauma, Stress, or abuse. Dissociation can also impair memory, emotion regulation, and personal Integration. An example of Dissociation as a Pathological form of Self-transcendence is when someone experiences Flashbacks or blackouts that make them lose track of time or place.
- Addiction: A chronic condition that involves a compulsive use of a substance or behaviour despite negative consequences. Addiction can be seen as a form of Self-transcendence that involves a narrowing of attention and motivation toward a single source of reward, resulting in a loss of Self-regulation and social Connection.
- Mania: This is a state of elevated mood, energy, and activity that can occur in bipolar disorder or other psychiatric conditions. Mania can be seen as a form of Self-transcendence because it involves a loss of sense of separate self, a feeling of Connection with a higher power or a grandiose mission, and a disregard for Social norms and consequences. However, Mania is not a healthy or adaptive form of Self-transcendence, as it impairs judgment, Insight, and reality testing. Mania can also lead to Risky behaviours, interpersonal conflicts, and physical and mental exhaustion. An example of Mania as a Pathological form of Self-transcendence is when someone believes they are a prophet or a superhero and tries to accomplish impossible or dangerous tasks.
These Pathological forms of Self-transcendence impair functioning and cause distress by interfering with the ability to cope with reality, maintain a coherent Sense of self and relate to others in healthy ways. They also contradict the Salutogenic process of Self-transcendence, which involves finding Meaning and Coherence in life challenges, expanding one’s Perspective and identity beyond the Ego and enhancing one’s wellbeing through positive relationships.
What are the psychological and neural mechanisms underlying Pathological forms of STE?
One psychological mechanism that may contribute to Pathological Self-transcendence is a lack of closure. Closure refers to how much past regrets do or do not define oneself in the present. Self-transcendence is associated with a greater sense of closure and lower feelings of victimization. However, when closure is absent or impaired, one may experience a loss of identity, a sense of meaninglessness, and a detachment from reality. For example, a person who suffers from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have Intrusive memories and Flashbacks that prevent them from achieving closure and moving on from their Trauma. This may lead to a Dissociation from their body and emotions, and a loss of Connection with others.
Another psychological mechanism that may contribute to Pathological Self-transcendence is a lack of interconnectedness. Interconnectedness refers to how much we do or do not feel connected with humanity as a whole. Self-transcendence is associated with a greater sense of interconnectedness and Compassion. However, when interconnectedness is absent or impaired, one may experience a sense of isolation, alienation, and Paranoia. For example, a person who suffers from schizophrenia may have Delusions and Hallucinations that make them feel disconnected from reality and other people. This may lead to a distorted Sense of self and others, and a loss of empathy.
A neural mechanism that may underlie both Psychological mechanisms is the Default mode network (DMN). The DMN is a network of brain regions that are active when the mind is at rest or engaged in self-referential processes. The DMN has been implicated in Self-awareness, Self-regulation, and Self-transcendence. However, when the DMN is dysregulated or hyperactive, it may interfere with other Cognitive functions and lead to Pathological forms of Self-transcendence. For example, a person who suffers from Depression may have an overactive DMN that causes them to ruminate on negative thoughts and emotions. This may lead to a reduced sense of agency and control over their life.
In conclusion, Pathological forms of Self-transcendence are complex phenomena that involve psychological and neural mechanisms that disrupt the normal functioning of the self. By understanding these mechanisms, we may be able to develop interventions and practices that promote well-being and healthy forms of Self-transcendence.
How can we differentiate between positive and Pathological forms of STE based on their features and outcomes?
One possible way to distinguish between positive and Pathological Self-transcendent experiences is to consider the context, intensity, duration, and Integration of these experiences. According to Yaden et al. (2017), positive Self-transcendent experiences tend to occur in safe and supportive contexts, such as nature, music, meditation, or religious Rituals. They are usually moderate in intensity and brief in duration, lasting from seconds to minutes. They are also well integrated into the person’s sense of identity and world-view, Meaning that they do not cause distress or impairment in functioning.
Pathological Self-transcendent experiences, on the other hand, tend to occur in threatening or stressful contexts, such as Trauma, abuse, or isolation. They are often extreme in intensity and prolonged in duration, lasting from hours to days. They are poorly integrated into the person’s sense of identity and world-view, Meaning that they cause Confusion, fear, or alienation.
One suggestion regarding these judgements of positive and negative, considering the above comments. It is that perhaps the positive STEs are short exactly because they have been easy to accept by the individual, and therefore integrating them into their self-concept was easy. Whereas those that are classified as negative were more challenging, thus leading to an intense and prolonged drama as the individual struggles with the information the STE is trying to convey. This points to the negative STE only being so due to the mindset and understanding of the individual in question at the time of the STE occurrence.
Therefore, by examining the features and outcomes of Self-transcendent experiences, we can better understand their nature and implications for well-being. Positive Self-transcendent experiences can enhance our sense of Connection and Meaning, while Pathological Self-transcendent experiences can impair our sense of reality and agency. By recognizing the differences between these two forms of Self-transcendence, we can foster healthy and sustainable ways of experiencing ourselves and the world around us.
How can we explain the overlap between positive and Pathological forms of STE in some cases, such as Mystical experiences, Near-death experiences, etc.?
In some cases, STEs can overlap with phenomena that are usually considered Pathological, such as Mystical experiences, Near-death experiences, and depersonalization disorder.
Mystical experiences are characterized by a sense of Unity with all things, a loss of sense of time and space, a feeling of ineffability, and a positive affect. They can be induced by religious practices, psychedelic drugs, meditation, or spontaneous events. Mystical experiences can have positive effects on mental health, such as increased well-being, Meaning, and Prosociality. However, they can also be associated with negative outcomes, such as distress, Confusion, and Psychosis. The difference between positive and Pathological Mystical experiences may depend on the degree of Integration and acceptance of the experience, as well as the cultural and personal context of the experiencer.
Near-death experiences (NDEs) are complex psychological phenomena that occur when a person is close to death or in a life-threatening situation. They typically involve a sense of leaving the body, entering a tunnel, encountering a light or a being, reviewing one’s life, and feeling peace and love. NDEs can have Profound effects on the person’s world-view, values, and personality. They can also enhance one’s Spirituality and sense of Meaning. However, NDEs can also cause psychological problems, such as Depression, Anxiety, guilt, isolation, and difficulty adjusting to normal life. The impact of NDEs may depend on the interpretation and Integration of the experience, as well as the social support and validation from others.
Depersonalization disorder (DPD) is a dissociative disorder characterized by a persistent or recurrent feeling of detachment from one’s self or surroundings. People with DPD may feel like they are observing themselves from outside their body, or that their thoughts and emotions are not their own. They may also experience derealization, which is a sense of unreality or strangeness of the external world. DPD is often triggered by Stress, Trauma, or substance use. It is associated with impaired functioning and Quality of life. However, some people with DPD may also report positive aspects of their condition, such as enhanced creativity, Insight, and Spirituality. Some researchers have suggested that DPD may represent an extreme form of Self-transcendence that can be adaptive in some situations.
In conclusion, Self-transcendent experiences can have both positive and Pathological aspects, depending on various factors. They can be seen as a continuum rather than a dichotomy. More research is needed to understand the mechanisms and consequences of these experiences.
How can we prevent or treat Pathological forms of STE while preserving or enhancing positive forms of STE?
One possible approach is to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy forms of Self-transcendence based on the degree of Integration and Coherence of the self. Healthy Self-transcendence involves expanding the Boundaries of the self to include other perspectives and values, while maintaining a sense of identity and agency. Unhealthy Self-transcendence involves losing the Sense of self or becoming fused with an external source of authority or Meaning, which can impair one’s autonomy and critical thinking.
Another possible approach is to foster a balanced and flexible attitude toward Self-transcendent experiences, rather than rejecting or idealizing them. Self-transcendent experiences can be seen as opportunities for learning and growth, but not as ultimate truths or sources of salvation. They can be appreciated and valued, but not attached to or obsessed over. They can be integrated into one’s world-view and lifestyle, but not imposed on others or used to justify violence or intolerance.
A third possible approach is to provide psychological and social support for people who have Self-transcendent experiences, especially those that are challenging or distressing. This can include helping them to make sense of their experiences, cope with their emotions, and find Meaning and Purpose in their lives. It can also include connecting them with others who share similar experiences or interests, and creating a safe and respectful environment for them to express themselves and explore their Spirituality.
Certainly, from a spiritual Perspective, the concept of left-hand and right-hand path is well known. this refers to their being a path to awakening, which can either be light or dark centric. The suggestion being that we are interpreting the right-hand path as positive (mystical) and the left-hand path as negative (Psychosis). Perhaps we need to change our approach and need to jump to a diagnosis that needs treatment. Rather, both interpretations are really based on whether the individuals are based on encounters with the “angels”, or with “demons”? If this is the case, perhaps, with the correct interpretation, both can have potential for a positive outcome. To quote one individual:
“My awakening was demonic, it was really tough and in the middle of it I was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and put on medication. However, it was only after I realized that these demons were me, that they were nothing to be afraid of, that I “cured” myself of that schizophrenia. It seems that much of Religion is wrong, and does not help us with this aspect of awakening. You cannot reject any aspect of self, and, if you have them, this includes your demons or other dark entities”
In reality, it’s possibly the case that all STEs have the potential to be positive, and that we mistakenly classify many as negative because we are judging them before they have reached their conclusion. However, this is part of the nature of STEs, they are there to challenge us, with the Purpose of leading to an outcome that leads to beneficial change for the individual. As such, they are often highly challenging, and we come to psychology seeking guidance when we are in the midst of that challenge. The psychologist judges the experience based on “how it is now”, not on what the potential outcome may be, if the individual were to come to the right understanding about what the experience is trying to tell them about themselves.
This all springs from some basic lacking of experience and understanding of the psychologist, who may well have not had the benefit of STEs of their own and is therefore making a judgement based on what they have learnt, which may well not have been from a holistic point of view.
It’s probably the case, though, that as long as the individual is unable to recognize the inner truth the STE is trying to tell them, then we will continue to classify many STEs as negative and treat them accordingly.